Keep the beat going strong during February’s American Heart Month.
To keep your heart happy, it’s important to follow exercise, diet, and health guidelines. As a dedicated athlete, the exercise aspect should be taken care of during regular sessions at the gym. Show your heart some additional love by keeping up with the diet and health components as well.
♥ Up the Omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help lower the risk of heart disease, reduce blood clotting and inflammation, aid in fat burning, prevent the build-up of arterial plaques, and decrease high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
If you’re not a fan of omega-3 rich salmon, try barramundi, which is a mild tasting white fish. Found at Whole Foods in easy to prepare frozen fillets, this nutrient-dense superstar is delicious when baked or broiled with fresh lemon, herbs, and spices. With 830mg of omega-3 per 5 ounces (just slightly trumped by wild Coho salmon at 900mg), barramundi is heavy on heart health while being light on the waistline, sporting half the calories of salmon.
Aim for at least two 3.5-ounce servings of omega-3 rich fish per week. If you don’t eat fish and tend to forget your fish oil supplements, try consuming non-animal sources in foods such as almonds, walnuts, and chia seeds.
♥ Trash Trans Fats
Considered the ultimate bad boy in the fatty acid world, trans fat increases your LDL (bad) cholesterol and decreases your HDL (good) cholesterol. Trans fat is created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to increase shelf life and improve taste and texture. Many companies have scaled back their use due to mounting negative research and press, but keep your eyes peeled, as it can still be lurking in items such as crackers, cookies, french fries, margarine, salad dressing, and coffee creamers. Even if a label says “zero trans fat,” look at the ingredient list for any mention of partially hydrogenated oil. There can still be 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving with the zero trans fat claim.
♥ Sodium Safeguard
The need for fluid balance, nerve impulses, and muscle contractions makes sodium essential. On the flip side, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease may arise if too much is consumed over a period of time. The American Heart Association recommends keeping sodium intake under 1500mg per day. Sodium requirements for athletes, however, are usually different. During intense training sessions where sweat losses (and therefore sodium losses) are at a max, more sodium may be necessary for replenishment.
When replacing sodium losses during and after workouts, reach for electrolyte replacements such as those in the Gatorade G Series and Ironman Perform. A pinch or two of sea salt with meals is another option. Just remember, a little goes a long way, as a half teaspoon of salt equals about 1200mg of sodium. If you have a need to decrease sodium for health reasons, be sure to read your labels. You might be surprised by the sodium content of products like canned soups, soy sauce, frozen meals, and fast food items.
♥ Fiber Fill-Up
Fiber is plant material that your body can’t digest completely, and it is divided into soluble and insoluble forms. Soluble fiber, shown to decrease LDL cholesterol, slows digestion and stomach emptying, making you feel full, and it may aid in blood sugar and insulin regulation. It’s found in foods such as oatmeal, oat bran, chia seeds, beans, peas, lentils, sweet potatoes, apples, oranges, and strawberries. Insoluble fiber adds bulk and decreases constipation, and it can be found in items such as wheat bran, quinoa, brown rice, cauliflower, cabbage, leafy greens, green beans, nuts, and in the skins of fruits and root vegetables. Recommended fiber intake ranges from 21-38 grams per day, based on age, gender, and caloric intake. Remember to increase your fluid intake as you increase fiber consumption.
♥ Smoking Cessation
If you’re huffing and puffing, it should be because you’re doing sprints up stadium stairs and not because cigarettes are causing you to struggle through a workout. Smoking decreases oxygen to the heart and HDL cholesterol, and it increases blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and heart attacks.
From a training standpoint, smoking decreases lung function, causing loss of blood flow and inadequate oxygen to muscles. Decreases in endurance, stamina, and overall athletic performance will follow suit. This should be a no-brainer. Don’t smoke.
♥ Lab Tabs
Along with blood pressure and glucose and insulin levels, there are a handful of labs specific to heart health that should be drawn regularly, including cholesterol, triglycerides, C-reactive protein, homocysteine (amino acids), and lipoprotein. If abnormalities are detected, closer monitoring and treatment will be recommended, as this will indicate an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.